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Robert Stiles, 1836-1905
Four Years under Marse Robert
New York; Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1904.

Summary

Robert Augustus Stiles was born July 27, 1836, in Woodford County, Kentucky. His father, Reverend Joseph C. Stiles, moved the family to Connecticut, stopping for a time in Virginia and New York when Robert was sixteen. He graduated from Yale College in 1859, and soon after his graduation traveled to Richmond, Virginia, for his first visit to the South since his family's migration. Stiles became enamored with the South and its people. Although he was living in the North and considered himself a Unionist when the Civil War erupted, Stiles felt compelled by his Southern heritage and his own ideologies to fight for the Confederacy. After the Civil War, he remained in Virginia to study law, and practiced in Richmond for over forty years. He spoke often at Confederate memorial ceremonies, helped organize the Confederate Museum (now the Museum of the Confederacy), and served on the executive committee of the Southern Historical Committee. The first edition of Stiles's Civil War memoir, Four Years Under Marse Robert, appeared in 1903, and The Neale Publishing Company printed at least three subsequent editions before 1910. The most recent edition appeared in 1977. Stiles died on October 5, 1905, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, where he had a country home. He was buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, along with President Jefferson Davis and many other Confederate veterans.

Stiles claims that if one tries to explain the war as a fight over slavery or even over differing interpretations of the Constitution, then "the great conflict will never be properly understood" (50). At least in Virginia, he explains, war erupted because the state could not follow federal orders to attack another state. He also notes that he was not the only Ivy League Yankee to head South, enumerating examples from Harvard and Yale. These transplants invariably ended up serving in the artillery, which Stiles portrays as a convoy of poets and lawyers.

Stiles does not reserve his praise exclusively for his fellow artillery men. He also lavishes it on Confederate leaders such as D.H. Hill, Stonewall Jackson, and of course, the narrative's namesake, Robert E. Lee. Stories about Lee, who is certainly the hero of the text, often give way, however, to accounts of more unlikely heroes on the battlefield and selfless civilians on the home front. Stiles admires bravery and deplores cowardice, so he devotes special attention to those who risked their lives for the health and welfare of their comrades. He is particularly touched by the example of Scott, a fellow Yale man, who attempts to acquire water for the other men during battle. Scott succeeded in filling all their canteens but runs into heavy enemy fire on his return and died only a few steps away from safety.

Stiles provides glimpses into the less glamorous, everyday life as a solider. He describes snowball fights in the winter and the fun men have with the dogs that travel with the company. During and after battles, Stiles's descriptions become intensely graphic. In one particularly gruesome instance at Gettysburg, Stiles and his men were forced to fight on a battlefield that had been used for fighting three previous days but had not yet been cleaned up by the burial corps. The men wait as long as possible for the Federal troops in the hot July sun while sitting among the bodies of men and horses, but all eventually became too ill to maintain their position.

Despite demoralizing situations like these, Stiles and his fellow soldiers remain steadfast in their devotion to the Confederate cause. Their dedication, Stiles posits, is bolstered by their religious faith, and he concludes that "fighting zeal is so frequently combined with a high degree of spiritual religion" (p. 66). Stiles is himself a devout Christian and tells many stories of battlefield conversions and final, heartfelt prayers for the dying. In one of the most interesting chapters of the narrative, "Religious Life of Lee's Army," Stiles discusses the religious services held in the camps and asserts, "no account of my experience as a Confederate Soldier would be complete" without an examination of the men's spirituality and their unwavering faith in their God and their mission (p.138).

Even as a prisoner of war at Johnson's Island, where he was taken upon his capture during the Confederate retreat from Richmond, Stiles remains emphatically loyal to the Confederacy. Although he has the opportunity to be released from prison by swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States, he refuses to do so. He eventually capitulates, but only after raising a host of legal challenges to the oath. His only complaint about the Confederate government is the lack of recognition for soldiers. He notes that the Union soldiers he met constantly spoke of being recognized and promoted for their valor and service, while much of the bravery on his own side went unnoticed by army administration. Indeed, in the closing chapters of his narrative, as he reflects on the physical, psychological, and ethical elements of life as a soldier, Stiles reminds his reader that his memoir is just as much about the bravery and devotion of his fellow enlisted men as it is about the man who led them.

Works Consulted: Krick, Robert K., "Introduction." Four Years Under Marse Robert, by Robert Stiles, Dayton, Ohio: Press of Morningside Bookshop, 1977; Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), "Major Robert Stiles died yesterday morning [...]," 6 October 1905, p.3. Henley Marriage/Obituary Index, Library of Virginia ( http://www.lva.lib.va.us/index.htm).

Jennifer L. Larson

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